July 19, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Why does Jesus command us to love our enemies? Today, why would Jesus ask us to, say, love a racist?
What did Jesus mean when he said that you should “love your enemies?” To pick a contemporary example, as a Jesus follower, how should we respond to a racist person?
In the aftermath of the tragic death of George Floyd in 2020, I wrote about my family’s experience of systemic racism. I ended my reflection this way: “Surely it is time for us to mourn and to repent … May we follow Jesus in doing the hard work of excising the structural evil of racism from our public institutions today.” In the three years that have passed, racism – both individual and systemic – continues to flourish. Perhaps most disturbing of all, in parts of the church, it has intensified.
So how are we to respond? Given the circumstances, why would Jesus tell us not to hate but to love a racist? And what might that kind of love look like?
To begin with, it’s worth noting how Jesus treated his enemies. A good example is Jesus’ confrontation with some of his religious enemies, including the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus’ love didn’t mean agreement with or an unwillingness to confront them—quite the opposite. Jesus’ scathing rebuke in Matthew 23 challenges any notion that love means simply being tolerant or even affirming.
God is committed to the flourishing of God’s creatures, including all human beings who are made in God’s image. And Jesus came to redeem and transform a fallen world, including human individuals, communities, and institutions. The love Jesus commands is an expression of that commitment.
So, why does Jesus command us to love our enemies? Today, why would Jesus ask us to love a racist?
First, Jesus wants us to be like God. As our text says, “Love your enemies … that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Love is central to our identity as human beings who are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27 NIV). In other words, we are to be a “chip off the old block.” We are to reflect a family likeness in how we treat others by embodying God’s character and nature. And that includes God’s gracious love and generosity that causes the “sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The Gospel of Luke puts it even more pointedly, God is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35 NIV).
Second, Jesus wants us not to become like our enemies. The risk of hatred is that we take on the character and methods of those we oppose. In my reflection from 2020, I said that those events “reawakened a long overdue revulsion at the injustice and, dare I say, blasphemy of the powers of darkness who come dressed as an ‘angel of light.’” Righteous indignation and moral outrage are potent forces when they are unleashed in us. Jesus reminds us that they put us at risk of becoming like the enemies we detest. Love and not hatred of our enemies is the only way not to turn ourselves into false angels of light. As the apostle Paul says succinctly, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17, 21 NIV).
Finally, Jesus wants us not to respond out of guilt. This is not explicit in our text but implicit in my experience. Sometimes, we see some of ourselves in our enemies. And we hate what we see and respond accordingly. As I observed before about systemic racism, “I have been all too attached to the privileges of ‘fitting in’ to existing power structures that historically privilege white males … Like many other Christians, I have been willing to follow, benefit from, and even defend such darkness.” Our complicity can cause us to react with hatred at the reflection we see of ourselves rather than find creative ways to love our enemies.
In the end, Jesus commands us to love our enemies because that’s what God does. In some ways, today’s text is the pinnacle of Jesus’ sermon so far. Jesus’ repeated rhetoric – “you have heard it said … but I say to you …” – finds its culmination in this last command: “Love your enemies.” And why? Because you are made to be the image and likeness of God.
But make no mistake; this is a difficult command. So, how are we to love our enemies, given the passions that our enemies stir up within us?
We’ll explore that tomorrow.
Who are your enemies?
How do you feel about them?
Take 5-10 minutes to think about the above questions. Write out your responses and reflect on them for tomorrow.
God our Father,
Our experience of our earthly fathers is not always consistent with who you are. So, it is hard for some of us to be convinced that you are who you say you are: gracious and compassionate, full of steadfast love and faithfulness.
But in Jesus, we see you in action. As the apostle Paul wrote, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Thank you for a love that transcends our failures and fallenness.
Help us to love like you and to become more like you.
We ask in Jesus’ name and for his sake.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Is Righteousness? (Matthew 5:17-48).
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.